You Can Read English, Can’t you?
I didn’t want to come to help my mother move but there’s no one else. My guess is that it’ll take a couple of months to find a flat for her and clear out her house. Although there’s plenty of space for me to stay in her five-bedroom house, I have booked a hotel. It has been years since I’ve been in the company of my mother for more than a few days.
Picking up my mobile, I dial her number. My mother and I speak to each other in three languages – sometimes we start a sentence in one language and half way switch to another. Our languages are Mandarin, Cantonese and English – each one is embedded with secret codes that are only known to us. Speaking in Mandarin – our special, intimate language – I tell her I’ve arrived in Manchester.
‘What time will you get here?’
‘It’s late now; I’ll come tomorrow.’
‘You’re not staying with me?’
‘I’m staying in a hotel in the city centre. I’ll come ...’
She slams the phone down before I can finish the sentence.
When I called from New York a week ago to tell her I had booked a flight for London, I said nothing about staying in a hotel. I had expected an argument when she found out, but slamming the phone down without a row isn’t how she normally behaves. She loves a fight and never misses an opportunity to give me a hard time. She is not her usual self; she is upset about my stepfather’s death – even though he had left her twenty years ago – and the impending move from the house that has been her home for the past forty years.
The next morning I wait for my mother to get up. I don’t have keys to the house and want to make sure she is up before I go there. It’s ten o’clock but I’m afraid to phone her. She gets up late, usually around half past ten. If I wake her, she will be angry. My mother has a quick temper and she can lash out anytime and anywhere. Thinking she isn’t up yet I linger in the café reading the Guardian. At ten-thirty I call and there’s no answer. Half an hour later I try again but there’s still no answer. The café is filling up with people who have come in for a break from their shopping; I leave and go to the bank on Market Street and then I call again. The phone rings for a long time but she doesn’t pick up. Is she asleep or is she not answering because I wouldn’t stay with her? Now I wish I had told her about the hotel; I was busy wrapping up my life in New York: packing and storing my belongings, handing over my projects at the charity where I worked. I love New York and love my job. But she is 85 and needs my help.
After lunch I call but she doesn’t answer the phone. I’m worried now. Has something terrible happened to her? I catch a bus from outside the hotel and go to her house.
She opens the door and as soon as she sees me, the corners of her mouth turn downwards and she walks straight back down the hall. I follow her, past the faux-columns by the dining room, into the drawing room. Stepping into what was the best room I’m shocked by the state of it. This used to be where my parents entertained; it’s now a complete mess. The heavy brocade curtains are propped up by two wooden poles as the track can no longer bear their weight. My mother’s Chinese books – among them a collection of outstanding works by twentieth century authors – lie on the floor, some of them stacked up precariously, bereft of the bookcases that once housed them. It is as if a great flood had lifted the books and papers up and then dumped them haphazardly on the floor. I haven’t been in the house for ten years and can’t believe how it has disintegrated. My memory of this room belongs to an older time when I lived here: exquisite antique Chinese furniture against a backdrop of walls lined with books. When my stepfather moved out, he took with him a few pieces of furniture and all his books along with the bookcases.
My mother sits down to watch TV and ignores me.
‘I’ve been calling you all morning; why didn’t you answer the phone?’ I ask in my I-think-you’re-a-bloody-nuisance English.
‘You must have called the wrong number because the phone never rang,’ she answers in English, and her tone is even colder than the house. Having been trained as a soprano, she has perfect control of her voice and of her delivery. She can use her words to kill, if she wants to. I’ve been a broadcaster for most of my life, so I’m sensitive to the tone and nuances of voice and diction – especially to those of my mother’s.
I check her phone; it’s dead.
‘Have you forgotten to pay the bill? Your phone’s been cut.’
‘Of course I’ve paid the bill.’ Not believing what I’ve told her, she picks up the phone and tries dialling some numbers.
‘Where’s the phone bill?’
‘How do I know?’
A functioning telephone is essential if I’m going to help her move. It’ll be impossible to show her how to use a mobile phone; in any case she wouldn’t remember where she’d put it.
She goes back to watching television. Although it’s mild outside it feels much colder in the house. She is wrapped in a thick towelling robe and I can see that underneath it she’s got her pyjamas on. I sit down and start searching for the phone bill. Soon I get tired of looking through old newspapers, takeaway menus, pizza deliveries and offers from phone providers. I stop to pick up my mother’s mug of green tea on the way to the kitchen. Walking into the living room I find myself in darkness – even though it’s two o’clock in the afternoon the thick curtains are drawn. When I open the kitchen door I see my mother hasn’t cleaned or tidied up her large kitchen in years. There are dirty dishes in the sink, on the draining board and on all the worktops. Dirty saucepans jostle for positions on the gas cooker. Cardboard boxes, food containers, pots and pans, opened packages of noodles, three electric rice cookers, a set of scales complete with the weights, biscuit tins, a toaster, an assortment of plates and bowls, cutlery, chopsticks, a food mixer with a cracked bowl, a bamboo steamer – are scattered on the kitchen floor. She has left only a narrow path that allows access to the sink, the cooker and the fridge. A big plastic rubbish bin is full, its swing lid on the floor surrounded by Tesco and Sainsbury bags of rubbish. There are about a dozen bowls of various shapes and sizes on the worktop, all covered with a plate or a saucer. I pick up a plate to see what is in the bowl; whatever it was, it’s unrecognizable now. I look at the other bowls, some have mould growing in them, others are in such an advanced stage of decay that all I see is a brownish-black mass. Amazingly, the kitchen doesn’t smell. I put that down to the frigid temperatures.
I’m shocked. Although the dining room and the drawing room are messy, they are nothing like this. I can’t understand how anyone can live in this filth and wonder if there are mice and cockroaches in the house. I put the kettle on and look for an apron and rubber gloves.
My mother walks in.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m making a cup of tea.’ I fish out a mug from the sink and wash it. ‘Do you have rubber gloves?’ I ask as I rinse the mug with the water that has just boiled in the kettle.
‘What do you want rubber gloves for?’
‘I thought I’d make a start on this.’
‘You’re selling the house, people will come to look at it. Do you want people to see your house like this?’
‘It won’t be my house anymore.’
‘But you have to sell it first,’ I mutter under my breath. What I want to say out loud is: are you really that stupid?
‘Just make your tea and come out.’ She picks up her tea and disappears into the darkness of the living room.
I find an apron on the radiator and start clearing a space on the draining board. When I lived with my mother and stepfather, I was the one who did the washing up. My mother was a fantastic cook and not only was she an expert in Chinese food, she was also accomplished in French and Italian cuisine. My parents frequently gave dinner parties and although occasionally I was allowed to help to wash or slice some vegetables, my role in the kitchen was mainly that of cleaner. I turn the tap on and let it run. After several minutes, the water is still cold. I look at the hard dried crust on the plates and bowls and wonder how I’m going to get it off. I don’t want to touch the dirty dishes with my hands and decide to leave the washing up until I can pick up a pair of rubber gloves in a supermarket.
Back in the drawing room I ask my mother about the hot water. She tells me the central heating is broken and she isn’t sure about the immersion water heater. She doesn’t remember the last time she used it and I wonder when she last had a bath. I’ve considered having my mother live with me – a move I view with trepidation. Now this is what I need to hear to banish any thought of that – it’s bad enough she doesn’t do any cleaning, but I won’t live with anyone who doesn’t wash regularly.
I return to the task of looking for the phone bill and when I’ve checked through the papers on the table, I put the junk mail into a plastic bag.
‘What are you doing with that?’
‘Just some old newspapers and advertisements, I was going to throw them out.’
‘Don’t throw them away.’
‘Why? What do you want them for?’
‘Old newspapers are useful.’
‘You’ve got lots of newspapers,’ I say, raising my voice. ‘How can I help you clear the house if you won’t throw anything away?’
‘Leave my things alone. Nobody asked you to help.’
I put the bag of junk mail on the floor; it’s dark outside and I want to go back to my room in the Travelodge.
The next morning I go to the house after breakfast. I ring the bell continuously and bang on the door. Eventually my mother opens the door. She goes to the kitchen to make coffee and I start sifting through the heaps of papers. I make two piles: one to keep and the other to throw out. I’m careful with what I throw away; there are letters, bank statements and some incomplete documents that look as if they might be important. The amount of mess in the house tells me my mother doesn’t have any kind of system, and her failing memory means I won’t get any help from her in sorting out her finances.
I take a break from looking for the phone bill and go to the kitchen to tackle the mess there. I unbolt the back door to take the rubbish out but find it locked. The key isn’t in the door. When I ask my mother, she produces a key from a kitchen drawer and I wonder if her memory isn’t as bad as she leads me to believe.
At lunchtime, the doorbell rings; she gets up quickly to answer the door. I follow her, curious to see who the visitor is. It is meals-on-wheels. The meals-on-wheels man leaves the food on the dining table. She sits down to eat it straight from the foil containers while I watch her from the other side of the table. Half way through the cottage pie and peas she asks if I want any. When I say no, she offers me some of the jam roly poly pudding with custard. I shake my head – the food reminds me of school dinners. I wonder how my mother, who has been a great cook and a gourmet, can eat this day after day. Leaving her to finish her lunch, I return to the task of finding the phone bill. When she has eaten, she comes back to the drawing room with a cup of tea.
‘What are you doing?’ she asks me.
‘I’m looking for the phone bill.’
‘Why are you looking for it?’
‘Your phone has been cut off, I think it’s because you haven’t paid it.’
‘Of course I’ve paid it.’
There’s no point in arguing with her. I continue to go through the pieces of paper in front of me. After a while, she asks me what I’m doing and we have the same conversation again. We have this conversation a few more times and then she seems to remember. After being quiet for a few minutes she talks to me again.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘I don’t know.’ I’m holding a piece of A4 paper that has been ripped in half and I can’t work out if it’s a statement or a bill of some sort. I’ve lived abroad for the past twenty years and looking at my mother’s papers there are many things I can’t figure out – I feel like a foreigner who has just arrived.
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘I don’t know what this is. It doesn’t matter.’ I say this to discourage her from asking any more questions.
She knows I am stuck. We have always been able to read each other’s mind. Many years ago, when I lived at home, one evening I came down to dinner after my stepfather had already set the table. She had asked him to get a certain ladle for the stew; I walked in at the point when he had, for the second time, got the wrong one. Although I had not heard her instructions, I went into the kitchen and brought out the exact thing she wanted. The almost telepathic closeness between us had at times brought us joy, but these happy moments never lasted and right now she is getting on my nerves. I’m beginning to feel inadequate. For as long as I can remember, she has a way of asking me questions that makes me feel persecuted. It’s worse now that she is losing her memory. I think of the huge task in front of me: find her a flat and move her; sort through all her stuff; empty the house. But I’m not doing any of these; I’m looking for a phone bill. And half the time I am not even doing that – I am answering her silly questions. I want to get out of here and go back to my life as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know what my life is anymore. I have resigned from my job in New York and my US work visa has been cancelled. But I don’t want to stay in Manchester any longer than I have to.
Hardly a minute has passed when she asks me what I’m looking at.
‘Why don’t you watch TV?’ I say.
She is quiet for a minute, then:
‘What are you looking at?’
‘I don’t know.’ I aim the words at her as if they’re darts.
In front of me is something that looks like an official communication, and I have no idea what it is.
‘What do you mean “you don’t know”?’ She mimics the way I said “I don’t know”. Then she continues: ‘You can read English, can’t you?’
‘You can read English too; why don’t you tell me what this is?’ I stick the paper under her nose.
‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that!’
‘Listen! I am looking for your phone bill which you have fucking forgotten to pay. We need to have the phone working. Can you just keep your bloody mouth shut and let me get on with it?’
I grab my coat and bag and head towards the front door. Stepping outside, I slam the door behind me.
This is not the way I talk to my mother, not usually, not even when she is nasty to me. I lived with my mother and stepfather for three and half years when I was a teenager. During that period, only twice did I lose my temper and shout at her. It took too much energy to fight her. I wanted a quiet life and dealt with her by fleeing. When I lived with her, I avoided speaking to her and made sure I didn’t see her. I went out before she was up, and crept in when she was watching TV in the living room. Eventually, when I was a Sixth Former, I left home. From then on, there were long periods of no communications between us.
When I decided to help my mother move, I had naively thought that I could bulldoze my way through and force her to cooperate. I’ve forgotten how wilful and pugnacious she is, and how her words and actions affect me. Reasoning with her doesn’t work; I’ve seen my stepfather do that for years. She saw it as a sign of weakness and treated him with contempt. But getting angry, shouting abuse at her and storming out of the house will not get the job done. Realising I have to find a better way to deal with her, I turn up at her house the following day ready for more confrontation. While I go through the remaining piles of papers she continues to irritate me with questions and comments about what I’m doing. I find that the best way is simply to ignore her. Maybe she has learned not to push me too far. Before lunch, I find the phone bill - the final notice – in a pile of magazines on the floor
With the phone sorted, I feel I can relax a bit and take my mother for a Chinese meal. We order a taxi and get off at the Chinese Arch.
‘Where would you like to go? Do you want dim sum?’ I ask her.
‘I can eat and not pay,’ she says with a straight face.
‘Okay, let’s go and eat where we don’t have to pay,’ I say jokingly.
I follow my mother into the Great Emperor restaurant on George Street. For many years, she was friendly with the owner of a Chinese restaurant and we used to eat there. If the proprietor of this restaurant is her friend, perhaps he sometimes invites her to a meal. I don’t believe that he will let her eat free whenever she likes.
An old Chinese lady approaches our table.
‘This is my daughter,’ my mother says proudly in Cantonese. ‘She has come from New York to see me.’
One year after I came to England, we were in an expensive French restaurant in London: my mother, my stepfather and me. When we were leaving, my mother told the manager the coq au vin she had was the best she’d ever tasted.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Where are you from, madam?’
‘Your English is excellent. It must be a very difficult language for you, but you speak it so well.’
‘Yes, it is very difficult,’ she said.
‘But it’s possible to learn it in a short time,’ I said, in my best English accent. I waited for him to say that my English was even better than my mother’s, and that he would never have guessed I was not English if he could not see my face. Then I’d tell him that I had only studied English for one year. But the man ignored me and continued talking to my mother.
‘I hope you will come again. Do you live in London?’
‘We live in Manchester, but I was a music student in London.’
‘Do you like Italian opera?’
‘I studied singing for four years.’
I wanted to tell the man I had piano lessons for one year and had just passed my grade five examination. I was screaming inside: She might be clever but she has never done anything with her music training, she only sings at friends’ parties.
In the Great Emperor restaurant, the old Chinese lady rambles on in the Hakka dialect. I’m amazed how many Chinese languages and dialects my mother speaks. I smile and nod at the old lady, not understanding a word, that’s all I can do to be polite. My mother eats slowly – I’m not sure how many teeth she has. I make a mental note to take her to the dentist to get her some dentures. When we finish eating, she goes to the toilet and I pay for the meal. The manager gestures towards my mother and asks if we are related.
‘Your mother has some bills she hasn’t paid,’ he says.
I follow him and from under the bar he pulls out several receipts held together with a paper clip. My mother has signed and dated each one. I ask him what the total amount is and hand him my credit card.
‘Your mother tries to pay with her credit card. When we ask her to put in her pin number, she says she will sign the chit. But her card is chip and pin.’
After lunch we go to several estate agencies. The large detached house she is in now is expected to be sold for a substantial sum as it’s in a desirable area. With the money from the sale my mother will buy a flat in the centre of town and there will be money left for her to live comfortably. While she looks at the pictures of flats on display, I tell the agents in a lowered voice that we’re looking for a two-bedroom flat near Chinatown. My mother wants a big flat and I worry that she’ll fill every room with clutter, and in time, I’ll have to come and clear them. Two bedrooms, I tell the agents.
My Skirt is Falling Down
We have an appointment to see the solicitor about my stepfather’s will. The Central Library is where I’m meeting my mother. We can get the tram from there to the lawyer’s office in Sale. I’m in London for a break and before leaving my friend’s house in Marble Arch for Euston train station, I call her to get her out of bed. The phone rings for a long time before she picks up. ‘Get dressed, book a taxi, meet you at the library,’ I say. After I get on the train I call her again; she answers eventually and I suspect she has gone back to sleep after my earlier call. ‘You need to get up and get ready, we’re going to the lawyer’s, book a taxi now,’ I tell her. Arriving at Piccadilly train station I call her once more. Standing outside the library at one thirty, there’s no sign of her. I wait till quarter to two before I call her. No answer. After that, I call every five minutes, but she’s not at home. The appointment is at two. Deciding not to wait, I get on a tram. As the tram pulls out of the stop, I see her getting out of a taxi. I get off at the next stop and walk back.
‘You’re late!’ she says angrily.
‘I’ve been standing here waiting for you since half past one,’ I shout at her as we make our way to the tram stop. ‘It’s now after two and we’re supposed to be at the lawyer’s at two. I got on a tram to go there when I saw you arrive in the taxi. So don’t tell me I’m late. You’re the one who’s late!’
She turns to look at me, her face calm and betraying no emotion: ‘You don’t have to come with me. I can go there myself.’ We’re standing among a crowd of people waiting for the tram. Then she says, ‘You should know I’ve never wanted to have you, I never wanted to give birth to you.’ She says it with such venom, as if she means it.
I want to slap her across the face. Not once, not twice, but to keep hitting her until she is down on the ground, then I want to strangle her, squeezing the last breath out of her so she can’t hurt me anymore.
At the lawyer’s office, she is a different person. Composed but at the same time a little confused. I’m not sure if she grasps the meaning of the will but she doesn’t ask any questions. I’m shocked to learn my stepfather had asked for her to move out of the house within six months of his death so that the house could be sold. But the biggest shock is that he had left all the proceeds from the sale of the house to Margaret, the family friend for whom he left my mother twenty years ago.
When we come out of the lawyer’s office, she asks me if I am disappointed that he hasn’t left me anything.
‘But he has,’ I say, surprised that she hasn’t understood what the lawyer has just told us. ‘He gave me the silver.’ This is silver from his family that she and Margaret had waged bloody battles over. I remember the silver napkin rings with the individual initials that we used every day; the tea set, the rose bowl with the family crest, the fruit bowl, the vases, the picture frames and the cutlery. Many years ago, my cousin told me that my mother had bequeathed the silver to Jenny, her best friend at the time. Jenny had a Chinese restaurant in Didsbury. On one of my brief visits to Manchester, my mother wanted me to go to Jenny’s restaurant for dinner. I told her I had to catch a train back to London that evening as I was flying out of Heathrow the next morning for a conference in Chicago.
‘Can’t we just eat in Chinatown?’ I asked.
‘I want you to meet Jenny.’
‘I can meet her next time.’
‘But I told her we’re coming,’ she said. ‘I thought you’ve come to see me.’
‘I have. But I don’t have time to go all the way to Didsbury.’
‘We can have a quick meal there. It’s only five o’clock. You’ll catch your train, don’t worry.’
In the end, I was bullied into going to Didsbury. We arrived at the restaurant to find it closed. As we waited for Jenny outside the restaurant, I resolved that I’d never again give in to my mother’s unreasonable demands. When I had the opportunity, I told Jenny I had to catch the eight-thirty train and she promised to get me there. Jenny then disappeared into the kitchen and I wondered if I should order a taxi. She produced a sumptuous meal but the whole time I was worried that I might miss my train. My mother ate slowly and we couldn’t leave until she had finished. Jenny rushed me to the station. I was ten minutes late. I caught the train because it was even later than me. After that, I stayed away from her, like I did after every row, but eventually I came back to see her, pulled by a bond that I didn’t think existed between us.
Walking from the lawyer’s office to the tram station, I ask my mother if she wants to stop for a coffee.
‘No, but my skirt is falling down.’ She shows me the zip which can’t be pulled right up as the skirt is too small for her.
‘There’s a Boots over there. We’ll get some safety pins.’
Nobody Comes to See Me
I call the estate agents. A change of plan, I tell them, we are renting now, and it’s a small one-bedroom flat in the city centre that we are after. The following morning, I receive a call from one of the agents. There’s a small flat near Piccadilly Gardens and it is available now. I arrange to see it the next day.
The flat sounds ideal for my mother with Chinatown just a few minutes down the road. It’ll also be easy for her friends to visit her. My mother used to love giving parties but gradually her friends have fallen away. Eventually when the house became so untidy she stopped asking people to come round. I want her to move as soon as possible so that I can get the house sorted before winter sets in. Although I believe legally my mother can’t be forced out, it’s better for her to live somewhere clean and warm. For the past twenty years, ever since my stepfather left, he tried to persuade her to move to a smaller house. But my mother dug her heels in and refused. Now with his death, she can finally stop fighting and move out.
Today I’m the loving daughter and I show my mother round the flat – worried that she might think it’s too small – I talk to her like an estate agent keen to close a deal.
‘The kitchen is big,’ I say in Mandarin, our intimate language. We take a look at the bathroom and I say: ‘The bath tub is huge. You can almost swim in it.’
She is quiet and I’m not sure if she is happy with it.
‘We’ll sign the lease as soon as possible and in no time you’ll be living in a nice, warm flat.’
We leave and walk to Chinatown for lunch. I tell her she will be able to go to the restaurants whenever she feels like it.
‘Chinatown is only a few minutes from your flat,’ I say.
She nods, but still doesn’t say anything. We stop to wait for the green light to cross the road.
‘The best thing about the new flat is that it’s so convenient. You’ve got the buses, the trains and the trams right here,’ I say cheerily. ‘Your friends will come and visit you.’
The light has changed but she doesn’t move. She is staring at a point in the middle of the road. Then she says: ‘Nobody comes to see me anymore.’
I’ve never seen my mother like this. Is showing me that she is lonely and vulnerable designed to lure me back to Manchester to look after her? With the loss of the house and financial support from my stepfather, does she realise the small child she left in abject poverty, and again rejected a dozen years later, is the only person she has left in the world?